A team of Southeast Missouri State University students and faculty have been able to solve a real-world cold case in southeast Missouri.
Dr. Jennifer Bengtson, associate professor of anthropology, and her students, recently identified human remains found in a farm field near Charleston, Missouri, in 1979, through collaboration with Othram and Redgrave Research, a forensic sequencing laboratory.
The remains had been classified as “unidentified” and turned over to the University. The case went cold until Bengtson and her students “rediscovered” the case in 2013.
In 2016, Bengtson and her students submitted the case to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs), a national clearinghouse and resource center for the missing, unidentified and unclaimed persons across the United States. Traditional STR (short tandem repeats) profiling by the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification (UNTCHI) did not turn up any clues as to the person’s identity.
Bengtson and her students turned to forensic genealogy, a new approach to human identification using GEDmatch, a repository of DNA profiles voluntarily submitted by the public to connect with their biological relatives. Forensic genealogy has been applied successfully to solve cold cases as old and complicated as the 1979 Charleston case.
With funds raised through the Southeast Missouri University Foundation, Bengtson and her team of students continued testing with Redgrave Research. Redgrave Research was selected because of its enthusiasm for allowing students to be part of the investigative process. Modern genealogical research involves significant online work, so the genealogists at Redgrave Research created a private online forum and repository for information and findings, and acted as a primary communication forum as the geneticists, genealogists, and students worked through the case.
In 2020, Bengtson and her students sent a small sample of the remains to Othram, the leading forensic sequencing laboratory for law enforcement located in Woodlands, Texas, in the hopes of solving this case while providing her students a valuable learning platform. The Othram laboratory specializes in extracting and enriching human DNA from degraded, contaminated sources such as bone.
Once the lab digitized a full genome from the remains, lead forensic genealogists at Othram, Anthony Lukas Redgrave and Lee Bingham Redgrave, took the genetic data and worked with Bengtson and her students to recreate the genetic lineage.
Upon identification of the deceased, it was learned that his death was not a homicide, and the family of the deceased asked that the full name associated with the remains not be released. The deceased went by the name Harry and was in his mid-30s when he drowned in the Mississippi River. His death was known to his family and authorities, although his remains were never recovered. Based on original reports and new information, it is believed that significant flooding in 1979 resulted in Harry’s remains washing up on a farm downriver within a year of his death. His remains were likely burned incidentally as a result of a routine field maintenance before they were ultimately discovered by a farmer. He remained unidentified for 41 years before Bengtson, her students and Othram were able to finally identify the remains and contact his family.
Working on this case has been rewarding for both Bengtson and her students.
“It has helped me continue to learn and grow as an anthropologist, and allowed me to make a difference for a family who was missing their loved one,” she said. “Additionally, it’s provided a unique and deeply meaningful learning opportunity for students, who now have a valuable set of new skills and experiences to take in any number of educational and career directions.”
Southeast anthropology students have been involved in this case over the years in a number of ways, Bengtson said.
Students helped inventory the remains in 2013; develop a biological profile, including estimating the person’s sex, age, ancestry and stature; locate and work with old paperwork from the case; enter the case into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons database; and choose and send off samples for initial DNA analysis.
The students were also able to observe the process and interactions among the specialists and were able to ask questions and get answers directly from the experts.
Ariel Morrow, a junior double majoring in anthropology and forensic chemistry of Benton, Missouri, said working on this cold case has helped prepare her for graduate school and a career in forensic anthropology.
“Having the opportunity to be a part of an active case has given me invaluable experience that I will be able to build on through graduate school and into a career,” Morrow said. “This experience has confirmed my passion for this field in giving individuals their identity back and bringing closure to families.”
Recently, students have done specialized chemical analyses to try to understand burning patterns in the remains, and looked at some hairs that were found in the original box to try to determine whether they were human or animal.
Additionally, students participated in the forensic genealogy aspect that ultimately led to discovering the identity.
“This case has contributed so much to the lives and education of so many students,” Bengtson said. “The University’s anthropology program is a close-knit group, and our undergraduate students are the beneficiaries of these kinds of opportunities that might not happen at other larger institutions.”
Southeast senior Sarah Portell of St. Louis, Missouri, said this experience has provided her the opportunity to learn how forensic genealogy can give an unidentified person a story as part of a team.
“From our work in the lab to the facial reconstruction to the forming of the family tree, I learned that this process was a team effort,” said Portell. “I cannot thank Dr. Bengtson and the team at Othram enough for allowing students at Southeast to be a part of this process.”
Thanks to the dedication of everyone involved, and the support of the University Foundation and donors, Bengtson and her students are proud to help solve this case and bring resolution to a local family’s history, Bengtson said.
“There are over 13,000 sets of unidentified human remains held by various labs and agencies across the country, and all of them deserve to have their names back and be returned to their families, no matter how much time has passed,” she said. “Southeast’s anthropology program will keep working on these kinds of cases because it is the right thing to do, and students will continue to be part of it.”